Rocky Rococo and the Riddle of ‘So Bad It’s Good’
Driving away from Rocky Rococo one day, my roommate and I, both undergraduate bachelors, compared it to an esteemed Madison pizza joint. That place, he said, was like one’s wife, and Rocky’s played the mistress: disreputable, shame worthy, and a source of endless low-down pleasure. I countered that the classier pizza place was the buttoned-up dame you’d meet in a hotel bar during a work conference, and that Rocky’s was the wife: foundational, primally satisfying, a companion for the soul on both good days and bad.
We left it an impasse. I would later discover that marriage itself is the pizza — homemade, the recipe refined over iterations, all the heartier for being cooperatively made — but as my Madison friends likewise grew, matured, and frequently moved away, many find they haven’t escaped Rocky’s thrall. It’s the must-nosh pit stop when they’re back in town, the eyes alight in its so-bad-it’s-goodosity.
One such pilgrim is Heavy Table’s own James Norton, who joined me across the wires one afternoon at Rocky Rococo’s Brooklyn Park location, while I lunched at one of their Madison flagships. Our post-hoc email conversation follows, as we test my hypothesis that its signature dish, which my fellow theorizer of mistresses dubbed “pizza cake,” is the very best bad pizza on the planet.
JAMES NORTON: It was sort of amazing to drive up to Brooklyn Park and arrive at an honest-to-goodness Rocky Rococo’s. The place is so fused in my mind with high school-era Madison, WI that it’s bizarre to find it floating around present-day greater Minneapolis metro area.
But there it was. It had the same corny “family photographs” of fictional founder Rocky Rococo on the wall, the same super-sized slices of the day hanging out on the shelf behind the register, made who-knows-how-long ago.
As a food writer, I talk to people a lot about the difference between food you like and food that’s good. The knee-jerk assumption that a lot of people make is that if you like eating a food, it’s good. That’s wrong.
The example I typically give is Taco Bell. I like eating a Seven Layer Burrito and two soft tacos at Taco Bell. But it’s not good food, and I don’t defend it as such. If you’re going to claim that something’s objectively good, you should be able to provide context and cite evidence, but bad personal taste stands alone.
Rocky Rococo, as you mention in your introduction, is just objectively bad pizza. It’s soft and doughy. The sauce is too sweet. The cheese — oh, man, the cheese — is piled on thick and gooey. The crust lacks substance. ‘Pizza cake’ is such a good way to sum it up — the whole package is soft and sweet, doughy like the midsection of a typical modern American.
And yet, it’s got that guilty pleasure thing going on for me. My wife hates it (I had to cash in pre-existing good behavior points in order to convince her to shoot this assignment), but for me, it’s sort of like Proust’s madeleine… one bite, and I’m chilling on State Street in 1993, chowing down on slices with my friends, having some kind of overly earnest and ultimately misinformed conversation about girls.
SEAN WEITNER: My sympathies are certainly aligned with your assessment of why Rocky’s demands repeat business from those who associate that pizza with their youths, but I think there’s something to be said for the place even among those who don’t share our remembrance of Rocky’s past. It’s not just a nostalgia trip, and I can’t hold it up as an otherwise indefensible exemplar of bad personal taste.
Prepared pizza, particularly if you’re looking for family joints rather than members of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (which I believe is Italian for “Knights of Malta”), is a minefield of bad food, and I think Rocky’s outcompetes almost all of these options on gustatory grounds. If you’re a reader whose diet includes no space for Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, Papa Murphy’s, Uno’s, Sbarro, Carbone’s, Godfather’s, Little Caesar’s, Fazoli’s, frozen pizza, or cheap campus-area pies, then congratulations. But to the extent that bad pizza is a part of your diet, I think there’s a case to be made for including Rocky’s in that rotation, and in the pole position to boot.
Like regional barbecue, lots of areas claim some particular genius for pizza, but Wisconsin gets to make a particularly convincing case: We’ve got the cheese. As you note, Rocky’s doesn’t skimp on it; I don’t think any of the joints mentioned in the previous paragraph outdo Rocky’s when it comes to cheesy savor.
And it does well by its toppings; if I had to evaluate pizzas based on any single topping, I’d choose sausage, and Rocky’s sausage is heavenly. On most bad pizza, the sausage is the size of rabbit droppings, and the baking process leaves it totally desiccated and homogeneously dull. Rocky’s sausage comes in moist chunks bigger than marbles — sometimes almost as big as shooters — and it’s got more than one flavor note. That said, Rocky’s standard pepperoni and hamburger toppings don’t distinguish themselves as much, their bacon is oddly sweet, and the vegetables, while often included in adequate portions, are decent but don’t wow you with their freshness. Rocky’s marinara gravy is unexceptional — it’s too sweet, but it’s always too sweet in bad pizza — though the comforting flavor of traditional pizza herbs still comes through.
The soft underbelly of Rocky’s pizza is its soft underbelly, the deep-dish crust sodden with grease. Now, I’ve yet to try Rocky’s thin-crust pizza, which is offered once a week at its Madison locations, to see how Rocky’s flavor synergies work outside of the “pizza cake” paradigm. Their traditional crust is delicious in, fine, a totally disreputable way, but does any other bad pizza have a delicious crust in any way? Rocky’s crust is neither the sweetest, nor the greasiest, nor the soggiest bad-pizza crust out there, whereas most other bad pizzas have crusts that are competing neck-and-neck for most blandly forgettable.
It should be noted that, while they sell whole pies, Rocky’s main business seems to me to be selling slices at lunch, so you’re rarely eating made-to-order pizza. They always offer sausage / mushroom, pepperoni, sausage / pepperoni, and the “Garden of Eatin'” veggie pizza, and then they have one or two rotating slots, including seasonal specialty pizzas with uncommon ingredients. The two best slices in regular rotation are the Perfect (sausage, mushroom, onions, peppers) and the Rococo Chicago (sausage, four cheeses, diced tomatoes, and no sauce). These are the pizzas that I’d put up against any other bad pizza on the market… but I dunno, Jim. Am I trying to hard too extol the virtues of what is, in concept and execution, no different from a Seven Layer Burrito?
NORTON: I think you’re making a damned strong case, but as previously indicated, I’m pretty far from objective here.
You make a good point about the “best of the bad” claim, in that most bad pizza just makes me depressed. There’s something about cardboard crust, locked-up low-grade cheese, and / or dried out miserable sausage that makes what should be a sinful junky feast into merely a sad wallow through the Valley of Carbs.
Rocky’s, by contrast, at least does what it does festively. I look forward to an annual (or semi-annual?) Pepperoni Super Slice at Rocky’s — it’s nothing like my standbys like Black Sheep Pizza, Fat Lorenzo’s, Roman Market, but that’s precisely the point.
Part of the Rocky’s story for me has always been the branding and marketing, too. What is (maybe mercifully) not understood these days is that “Rocky Rococo” was a real guy in Madison — the head of the chain’s accounting department used to put on a white suit and prosthetic nose, if memory serves, and appear just about anywhere you might expect to see an actual VIP: festivals, bridge openings, whatever. “Hey!” you’d think, “it’s Rocky Rococo!” He also did copious commercials in a not-particularly-sensitive mix of faux Italian and New Jersey goombah, touting whatever amazing new topping combination was that month’s corporate priority.
In retrospect, I guess the whole Rocky’s schtick was sort of chintzy and arguably offensive — the natty white suit always conveyed the romance of Mafia gangsterism, and the older I get, the less amused I am by that kind of marketing. (Read the heartbreaking Excellent Cadavers if you want to get a true feel for the damage done by the Sicialian Mafia, or Gomorrah to learn about the Neapolitan Camorra organization … and then try enjoying commercialized pop culture riffs on Italian and Italian-American organized crime.)
All that said, as a kid, Rocky was just part of the pantheon of Fun Characters we got to enjoy, all the better for the fact he was a local. What’s your take on the man behind the pizza cake?
WEITNER: Well, we differ on this in that I only became aware of Rocky’s in college when I moved to Madison; my associations with the character aren’t quite as Pufnstuffian, although, sure, the cheerful gambino is a fraught character to play with, a little more ethnically dicey than, say, the Mario Brothers.
But that does bring up another facet of the Rocky’s experience that’s not available to Minneapolitans, and that’s as a Chuck E. Cheese competitor, with two locations offering skee-ball and arcade amusements. I’m sure you haven’t had Chuck cuisine in years, if ever, but it’s basically as bad as can be. You’d think there’s plenty of room in that market for someone to come in and serve better food, but the worst “meal” I’ve had in years was at It’z, a desert-state Chuck knockoff I took my kids to while we were waiting for their cousin to be born. Their buffet was like if a Sysco truck had an abortion. You call Rocky’s festive, and that’s exactly right, and it’s also an example of making bad-for-you treats out of actual food, the dark side of real ingredients. There’s ignoble merit to that, and my kids love it when we go there and eat pizza and watch Yogi Bear and The Snorks projected onto giant screens. It’s wholesome junk.
NORTON: And as wholesome junk, something best relegated to the “rare treat” and / or “coping with really bad news” categories of dining. From the Gopher State to the Badger State, thanks from me to you for talking — at length — about Rocky’s.
WEITNER: Yes, Rocky’s should be a staple of no diet, but on those occasions when bad pizza is the order of the day, the heretofore unrococo’d ought to set it in their sights, and it’s good to know that the Minneapolis location keeps the faith. Jim, next time you’re back to our emerald shores, I’d love to take you out for a slice… particularly at Cafe Porta Alba, where they say the oven is so hot the pizzas cook in less than a minute. Meanwhile, we’re hosting some former Madisonians tonight, and when they heard what I was writing up for you, guess where they wanted to go to dinner?
Pizza parlor in Brooklyn Park, MN
7540 Brooklyn Blvd
Brooklyn Park, MN 55443
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $4-12